What a Difference a Church Makes

Faithful Celebrate Foundation of Rome’s Cathedral

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 13, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Last Sunday, a funny thing happened on the way to the altar. Instead of the usual liturgy, we opened our missals or pamphlets to find that we were celebrating the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran.

Rarely do feasts pre-empt a Sunday Mass, the day of the Lord. Even the feast of St. Peter’s Chair and the Nativity of Mary disappear from the calendar when they fall on a Sunday.

But this Nov. 9, from one end of the globe to the other, we rejoiced in the foundation of the Cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran.

To understand the importance of this holiday, one has to start with the original name of the church, Christ the Savior, and its distinct position in the history of the Church as the first legal Christian edifice to be built by the emperor Constantine.

Constantine defeated his adversary Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge on Oct. 28, 312, despite overwhelming strategic disadvantages. Constantine dedicated his victory to the intervention of a God who had come to him under the symbol of the Chi Rho, the initials of Christ.

Within a year of his victory, the emperor legalized the Christian religion and began construction on a church dedicated to Christ the Savior. Like his imperial predecessors, Constantine’s building celebrated a military triumph, but for the Christians this victory was much more than the control of a city.

Constantine’s construction within the city walls signaled the establishment of legalized Christianity in Rome, a victory brought about not by battles and military skirmishes, but through the witness of thousands of martyrs who had given their lives for Christ.

The heroes of this triumph had never killed, taken prisoners or pillaged. They had endured oppression, torture and death. The might of the Christians lay in their love, not in their phalanxes.

In 313, the Christians could finally build and design their own church. They spurned the Roman temples, too small to fit anything more than a cult statue, and built a capacious basilica to gather thousands of faithful. No one would be left out, no one excluded.

Earthen vessels

Pagan buildings always emphasized the exterior appearance. Temples boasted grand columns of exotic marble on the porch and were lavishly sheathed in precious colored stones. The glamorous exterior however, concealed a dark chamber and internal emptiness.

St. John Lateran was built out of Roman bricks with no veneers or colonnades on the outside to hide the cheap material. It looked sturdy and humble, like an overgrown warehouse.

But those first Christians who crossed the threshold of the church on Nov. 9, 324, would have been dazzled by the glorious interior. Huge clerestory windows bathed the vast space with light glinting off precious chandeliers, candelabra and sheets of red, green and yellow marble. Gilt bronze columns glowed around the triumphal arch poised above the altar.

Christ said “I am the Light,” and in this first church, light warmed, directed and surrounded these early Christians, after years of practicing their religion underground in hidden houses or catacombs.

While it has been surmised that the external simplicity was merely to conceal Christian wealth from the pagans, the contrast between the humble exterior and the rich interior is fruit of Christian spirituality.

“We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us,” wrote St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, and his words formed not only the Church as the assembly of the faithful, but also the very building itself.

The followers of Christ, known and appreciated by many Romans for their kindness to others and their embracing of poverty, were radiant and aglow within, through the glory of God.

The momentous historical event of the first authorized Christian structure marked the first step of a visual culture where the art and architecture would work together to underscore the presence of God in the Church among his people.

The Christians rejoiced in the apse mosaic of the church, made of glittering tiles of glass and gold and representing the face of Christ. For this long-persecuted people, it was the first time the visage of Jesus emerged from the underground spaces and could be seen and worshiped in the light of day.

St. John Lateran has since undergone many changes, it has been burnt down, crumbled by an earthquake and sacked dozens of times, but the strong foundations laid in 313 have allowed the church to be rebuilt each time.

From the dream of Pope Innocent III, who saw St. Francis holding up the collapsing St. John Lateran, to Pope John Paul II, who oversaw the repairs after the mafia attack in 1993, the church has been a symbol of the dogged navigation of the Barque of St. Peter despite tribulation from within and without.

On Nov. 9, after a trying week, it seemed like Providence had prepared the calendar so that we could take strength in remembering that we put our hope and trust not in ourselves but in Christ, our Savior, who will always be with his Church no matter how damaged or battered it may be.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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